Laughter in the Gulag: “Sacred Darkness,” Translated from Russian by Brian James Baer and Ellen Vayner


By Dimiter Kenarov


cover_9781609454920_1471_600Looking back at the Soviet Union, nearly three decades after its demise, I can’t shake off the feeling of vertigo. That terrifying whale of an empire, whose blubber once stretched over a sixth of the landmass and most of the twentieth century, seems like a distant memory now, a mythical creature that existed eons ago, its bleached bones as old as a dinosaur’s. Somehow, imperceptibly and without any warning, recent history has become ancient history. There is something almost uncanny in the thought that so many people, not even that old yet, neurotically scrolling through their Facebook feeds on the subway or playing Candy Crush, have actually spent much of their lives in the belly of the whale. Jonah is still among us.

One of the survivors, the Georgian writer and politician Levan Berdzhenishvili offers us Sacred Darkness, a thinly-fictionalized memoir about the last days of the Soviet Gulag, the whale’s foul intestines. (Though technically designating a particular period in time, from 1930 to 1960, the term Gulag as commonly used in English today refers to all Soviet forced-labor camps.) For some readers this may seem like a belated look at a topic that has lost much of its original urgency and relevance – the last ray of light (or darkness, more accurately) that comes to us from a red giant that no longer exists. The tragic story of the Soviet forced-labor camps has been covered so thoroughly and poignantly over the decades in all sorts of genres – from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” and his classic The Gulag Archipelago, to Eugenia Ginzburg’s Journey Into the Whirlwind, to Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, to Vasily Grossman’s Everything Flows – that it’s difficult to imagine another book making its mark in this expansive and overexploited field. Who wants, in 2019, to hear about the Gulag? Isn’t it time to move on, and focus on more cheerful subjects, like ecological genocide?

Levan Berdzhenishvili has decided to take the risk of telling his tale. Aware of the illustrious literary legacy he’s wading in and paying his respects to it, he nevertheless strikes a narrative path of his own. This is not the dramatic, horror-filled story of frostbite, dirt, disease and death of the Stalinist era we are so familiar with. Neither does it describe the harrowing experiences of the political dissidents of the 1970s, of people like Vladimir Bukovsky and Pyotr Grigorenko, locked up in psychiatric wards, the so-called psikhushki, victims in a Soviet-made non-fiction version of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Berdzhenishvili, who founded with several friends an underground political organization, the Georgian Republican Party, and published a samizdat journal, was arrested by the KGB in 1983 and sentenced under the notorious Article 70 (“Anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda”) to three years in the Dubravka prison camp, a few hours’ drive from Moscow, in the Autonomous Republic of Mordovia. But those were already the dying days of the Soviet empire, with mummified emperors like Andropov and Chernenko at the helm, soon to be replaced by the well-meaning but gullible Gorbachev – a time in Soviet history when even the repressive apparatus of the state had lost much of its taste for blood and the persecution of dissidents was only half-hearted, driven by pure ideological inertia. To rephrase slightly an old Soviet adage: they pretend to scare us and we pretend to be afraid.

“The best years of my life” is how the book’s main narrator, also named Levan Berdzhenishvili, refers to his three years in Dubravka. Indeed, with its blossoming rosebushes and ramshackle barracks the place resembles a somewhat shabby summer camp for young pioneers more than a penal institution. It’s not a comfortable place by any stretch of the imagination, hot water is a rarity, the official store has rather limited stock, loose rolling tobacco (makhorka) and butter are always in short supply, letter stamps are scarce, but in all fairness the economic situation at the time was probably not much better on the other side of the fence. Since Dubravka is a labor camp, work is compulsory for all inmates, but they are not forced to break boulders with pickaxes to pave Siberian backcountry roads or dig for gold in the frozen tundra; instead, they have to sew heavy-duty mitts for the Soviet construction industry, a rather unpleasant task certainly, but with some practice most of them learn to fulfill their daily quotas by the middle of the day, after which they are free to engage in leisure activities: backgammon, ping-pong, reading, music, volleyball.

The political prisoners at Dubravka are no ordinary inmates either. Many of them, including the narrator, a former student of Classics, are the cream of the last Soviet intelligentsia. All of them are criminals in the eyes of the state, political prisoners sentenced under Article 70, but they seem more used to holding PhDs than knives or guns. In fact, they are the true focus of Berdzhenishvili’s book and each chapter centers around a different idiosyncratic personage (bearing his real-life name), creating in the process a kind of interlinked character sketches. There is Rafik Papayan, an Armenian philologist who studied under the famous literary critic Yuri Lotman, but who also proves to be a do-it-yourself engineering wiz; Pyotr Butov, a theoretical physicist from Odessa, who used to manage one of the biggest underground libraries in the Soviet Union; Vadim Yankov, a mathematician and a polymath from Moscow, who speaks half a dozen languages and whose wide-ranging knowledge embodies “the combined capabilities of Google, Yahoo, and Wikipedia;” Zhora Khomizhuri, a geologist so obsessed with numbers, and 26 in particular, that his friends create a special unit after his name, a Khomizhuri, denoted by the letter H.

Adding some proletarian flavor to the group, we encounter the occasional taxi driver and military man, but even they seem paragons of erudition, able to discourse with enviable ease on practically every subject from map making to the writings of Karl Marx. Rather than savagely fighting each other with sharp makeshift objects, as one might expect in a place like this, the inmates’ evenings are dedicated to poetry readings, story-telling competitions, heated political debates, philologically-inspired discussions on the origins of alphabets, and examinations of international cuisine in the form of Socratic dialogues. All things considered, Dubravka seems less a forced-labor camp than a secret branch of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. It’s a rare thing to read a book about the Gulag and to wish to have been there.

Berdzhenishvili’s American publisher Europa Editions advertises Sacred Darkness on the front cover as “the only book on the Soviet gulags that’s impossible to read without laughing.” There is a lot of truth to that, even if Gulag narratives, faced with the absurdity of the Soviet system, are not unfamiliar with humor, mostly of the black variety. Berdzhenishvili, however, takes the genre to a whole new level of hilarity – rendered skillfully into English by Brian James Baer and Ellen Vayner. Actually, the writing style owes more to the tradition of Soviet satirical literature, as exemplified by the likes of Ilf and Petrov and Venedikt Erofeev, than to the glum, blood-curdling atmosphere found in Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov. Part of that comes, of course, from the completely different historical conditions of the 1980s; being imprisoned in the era of glasnost and perestroika had a slightly ridiculous side. Still, it is admirable that Berdzhenishvili resists the automatic reflex to overdramatize his situation and to cast himself, and his inmates, into the simple stereotype of helpless victims, as the reader might expect.

In fact, it appears to me that prison life at Dubravka was probably harsher than the author is willing to tell us, and his off-hand levity conceals an amount of terror he chooses not to disclose. Herein, also, lies part of the book’s strength and its freshness: by refusing to be a victim, by employing humor to neutralize injustice, by deliberately understating his predicament, the author takes the upper hand in the battle with the Soviet regime and reclaims his own, and his friends’, human agency. Sometimes it is not the serious tell-it-all approach of documentary non-fiction that is the most effective weapon, but the skewed satire of the imagination. Laughter often neutralizes evil more effectively than tears. This also may be one of the reasons (among others, perhaps practical and legal ones) Berdzhenishvili has decided to call his book a work of fiction, rather than memoir, which for all intents and purposes it is.

Yet, the question remains: why does Berdzhenishvili write about the gulags so many years after the fall of the Soviet Union? Why does he delve into this ancient history? He does not explicitly aim to contribute much to the already vast historical knowledge about the period and does not warn openly about the dangers of totalitarianism (though we need warnings, with China creating gulags for its Uyghur minority, and the US imprisoning the children of migrants). The reasons behind the book’s composition appear to me to be more personal. On the one hand – and Berdzhenishvili tells us as much at the beginning – it is a roll-call of memory, a way to commemorate lost friends, by not letting their names disappear without a trace into the vast and bottomless maw of time; his book is like a Christian Orthodox prayer for the dead, when the priest reads out loud the names of the departed for pacification of their souls. On the other, Sacred Darkness seems an exercise in nostalgia, but not for the communist regime, never that. Unlike so many other citizens of the former Soviet Bloc today, Berdzhenishvili does not romanticize the past regime or long for its return. He was, after all, himself the direct subject of Soviet repressions and harbors no illusions about the true nature of that system. For him, the disappearance of the Soviet Union may be the best geopolitical development of the twentieth century, not the greatest mistake, as Putin would say.

A different form of nostalgia comes through, however, and it has less to do with issues of politics and economics, than with the seismic cultural shifts in our globalized times. It is the dissident intellectual community of the Soviet (pre-Internet) days that he mourns; the lost world of shared intellectual activity, of reading and writing and discussion, and the high value placed on the accretion of cultural knowledge. Plagued by shortages, doggedly persecuted by the state, often dangerous to possess, iconoclastic books were a truly valuable commodity in the USSR, perhaps the most valuable one. To know things mattered. Freethinking had a price – like ending up in Dubravka prison camp – and was very hard work to achieve, much harder than setting up a protest Facebook page or asking Google for an answer. Quoting Lyudmila Alexeyeva, “the queen of the dissident movement,” the narrator tells us that “the high quality of samizdat publications was directly related to the lack of proper equipment and facilities… if you’re using a typewriter you’re bound to choose only something of real interest to you, something that you’re willing to spend time on and take risks to reproduce.”

Ironically, it was the repression and censorship over the cultural sphere exercised by the Soviet regime, and the scarcity it generated of certain kinds of information, that made the demand for culture so important to so many people. That’s why liberal members of the Soviet intelligentsia were voracious in their reading diets, and could easily discuss almost any subject, from music to philosophy to biology to astrophysics. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, when culture ceased functioning as an ideological tool of the state, came the much awaited breath of intellectual freedom, but the sudden profusion and accessibility of knowledge also made knowledge worthless, just as a large discovery of gold deposits brings down the price of gold.

In today’s world, it would be almost unthinkable to come by people like Berdzhenishvili’s characters. We have now conveniently exported knowledge on our electronic devices and there is no real labor or danger involved in its retrieval. We are saving on time, but losing on meaning. We live in bright, but common light; the sacred darkness of the past was terrifying but also, in a way, more exciting.

Levan Berdzhenishvili, Sacred DarknessTranslated from Russian by Brian James Baer. Europa Editions, 2019.

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